Wednesday, 19 April 2006

Sleepfaring – Jim Horne ****

Sleep is something we’re all familiar with (even if we don’t get as much as we should), but few of us really understand it. Sleeping can seem a waste of time, or a dangerous risk while driving a car, but Jim Horne’s Sleepfaring takes the reader on a journey through the science of sleep that will explain many of sleep’s mysteries and give a better understanding of why it’s so important.
Horne begins with the magnificently titled first chapter “petunias, one-eyed ducks and roly poly mice”, and goes on to explore the nature of sleep and how stimulants effect our sleeping, sleep’s effect on the body, the dangers of sleep deprivation, the different phases of sleep and how the brain operates during them, and the whole range of sleep peculiarities from long and short sleepers to sleepwalkers, insomnia and snoring. There’s a special chapter on children’s sleep for worried parents, and even a little “lark or owl” test to see when your best functional times are.
Horne doesn’t spend too much time on dreams, which is a good thing in the context of the book – it also makes it an ideal companion to J. Allan Hobson’s Dreaming, which though also sporting a “science of sleep” subtitle, turns the emphasis round the other way and concentrates on dreaming, without giving us too much of the detail on sleep itself.
For the first few chapters I was convinced that Sleepfaring was a five star book – it read like a dream (ha), and has an excellent balance of lively, chatty presentation (there’s a real feeling that Horne is talking to you) and remarkable facts. It’s quite a surprise, for instance, to discover that dolphins sleep one side of the brain at a time, while the other side (and its opposing eye) is still active to keep the animal alive. This is wonderful. Unfortunately the book lost that final star by getting a little mired in the middle, particularly when Horne is discussing drivers falling asleep, a chapter that seems to say the same thing over and over again (perhaps because there really isn’t enough to say to make it a chapter, but this is Horne’s speciality). Horne also wildly overuses references to other chapters – “which we’ll find out more about in chapter 18″ and many, many variants of this, becomes a little irritating after a while.
Bear in mind, though, that this still leaves Sleepfaring as a “near best” four star read. It is largely very readable and excellently informative – it’s just a pity when much of it shows signs of being one of the best popular science books of the year that it has moments of inconsistency in interest level. However, if you want to get a better understanding of sleep, and to have an enjoyable read along the way, this is far and away the best book around.
Hardback:  
Review by Jo Reed

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